Evgeny Kuznetsov showed on Monday morning that he can, indeed, walk on water.
OK, so it was frozen and he was wearing skates.
But the fact he’ll begin his NHL career tonight against the Penguins [6:30 p.m., Caps Central, CSN] on a fourth line with center Jay Beagle and right wing Tom Wilson sends a clear message that the Capitals’ talented 21-year-old rookie will need to earn his ice time in Washington.
“We’ll definitely ease him in,” Oates said. “Obviously, everybody’s excited to see him, but for the team, he’s got to earn his stripes.”
“I think starting him there and letting him fit into the scheme and not put him in a position to make a mistake and get off on the wrong foot, it makes sense to do it that way.”
In all likelihood, Kuznetsov will find himself on one of the Capitals’ top two lines, possibly as soon as the second period tonight. But teammate Jason Chimera said it’s important that everyone temper their enthusiasm over the player some described as the best forward prospect not in the NHL.
“It’s not like we traded for Wayne Gretzky in his prime,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said after sharing the ice with Kuznetsov for the first time.
RELATED: [Kuznetsov starts off on fourth line]
“He’s a young kid, you can’t put too many expectations on him. It’s a big learning curve coming to the NHL.
“Hopefully he can help out. “He’s a skilled kid, he’s a really good player. But the expectations have got to be a little downplayed because everyone thinks he’s the second coming.”
There are other reasons Kuznetsov will make his NHL debut on a line with two forwards who have combined for four goals and 14 points this season.
Beagle and Wilson play a straight-forward, north-south game that will require Kuznetsov to skate straight lines down his left wing and not weave his way toward the middle of the ice.
“I think the biggest thing is to talk to him,” Beagle said. “Communication will go a long way tonight. As a fourth line it doesn’t matter who comes in, our role is the same grind-it, energy style. We’ll try to play in their end and make it hard on them all night.”
There is also the fact Kuznetsov has not played in a game since last Tuesday in Chelyabinsk and that his body clock is still adjusting to the 10-hour time difference.
Kuznetsov said “it was nice” to skate with the Capitals for the first time and that he felt “good” after his first full skate. He said that since NHL games are played at 5 a.m. in Russia his familiarity with the NHL is limited to highlights and the game he saw Saturday night between the Caps and Coyotes.
Tonight at Verizon Center the atmosphere will be ramped up several notches when Kuznetsov make his NHL debut against one of the world’s greatest player, Penguins center Sidney Crosby.
“He’s probably like in top five hockey players now,” Kuznetsov said. “Good player, very good.”
Kuznetsov has spent the past two nights staying at Alex Ovechkin’s house in Arlington and said “it’s very nice.”
Ovechkin, who scored two goals and played 17:36 on a line with Dainius Zubrus and Jeff Halpern in his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2005, said he’s anxious to see what Kuznetsov can do for the Capitals.
“Everybody knows he has skill,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t think we have to expect tonight five goals and lots of points. He has to play a normal game and be himself. He’s a grown man, but he’s still a kid.”
Kuznetsov and Ovechkin played together just once, during the 2012 World Championships. Kuznetsov played in nine games in that tournament, recording two goals and four assists. Ovechkin played in three games and had two goals and two assists.
“He knows how to play hockey. He has experience. He’s been in that position where everybody plays physical, everybody plays hard. We’ll see tonight. Maybe he’ll get a big hit right away and it’ll be good for him and for us as well.”